Are we going to have jobs?

I thought people might want to read this recent article by Stanley Fish in the New York Times about the future of academia.  It is how colleges are getting turned into trade schools, and what the implications are for “non-essential” study like philosophy, history, English, and probably also political science.

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About Jake Wobig

I teach international relations and comparative politics at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina
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9 Responses to Are we going to have jobs?

  1. abalzer says:

    I wonder if this trend is different across different levels of university – as in, are R-1 (research-one) schools on the same path? I have definitely noticed this even in the “quality” of graduate education available. Many of my peers are earning master’s degrees in more of a “market” than academic manner – even in fields like the natural sciences. Are our M.A.’s and Ph.D’s worth more?

  2. I suppose it would depend on if, in the next three-five years, academia has regressed overall to the same low level that certain segments of the education system have. I’m looking at you, business college.

    There’s a good example of a “useful” academic endeavor. It makes sense–after all, you go and get a bachelor’s in business and the world is your oyster (see ANY college graduation, count up the business majors vs. non-business majors). Trouble is that there are so many people with this “useful” major that one has to go back to school to get an even more useful one (MBA, anyone?). Huh.

    I guess we just finished up our eight-year tenure with the highest-ranking MBA holder ever, so maybe I’m wrong. I just hope this gets straightened-out in the next three years.

  3. Jake says:

    I was thinking about this at the gym today, and I’m starting to think this is a monstrous problem, both in terms of importance and of complexity. What we have here is a major shift in the values of education motivated by a combination of changing class structure and the degree of specialization required to operate in the modern economy.
    It used to be a college education was designed for the aristocracy, people whose primary life tasks were the preservation of family wealth, running major businesses and statecraft. They were a relatively homogenous bunch, and they took classes in only a handful of fields: philosophy, history, English literature, theology, and not much else. Why were these the subjects of study? Because they teach the most important thing for any future leader or executive: judgment.
    Think about it. Any good executive is only going to make decisions once in a very great while; the nature of their jobs is the sort Fukuyama described as having “low transaction volume.” And the decisions they face are not straight up-and-down, fact-based, skill questions, they are questions laden with uncertainty, ambiguity, and perhaps moral peril. Being trained as an accountant provides you absolutely no guidance in how to answer such a question, but being trained in philosophy does.
    But college education gradually expanded to include people who were not destined to engage in these sorts of activities during their careers. Partly this is because such jobs are not distributed meritocratically (see Letter), but partly this was just because rising levels of wealth meant more and more people could afford to send their children to college. However, this new cohort of students, and more importantly their parents, viewed college differently than the older elite view. At the risk of sounding elitist, I’m going to call this the Prole view.
    The Prole view was that college was good because it got you a job with a high salary. But the Proles didn’t understand the connection between college and that high salary. Your average hard-working, God-fearing Prole parents believed that college was somewhat like their own training, except longer and more rigorous. They expected it to be something like an apprentice-ship. In short, they believed that college was about teaching FACTS, not JUDGMENT.
    Now this shouldn’t have worked. It should have been that Prole students would have realized that they were being trained for jobs that were barred to them by social elitism, and eventually those destined for non-managerial jobs would have realized that they would be better off going directly into the workforce. But at the exact same time the Proles were getting on campus, the entire economy was undergoing a major shift which had big implications for higher education. That shift was that jobs were becoming increasingly specialized, such that twelve years of education were insufficient to prepare a person to jump into many fields. Quite naturally, society decided to rely on our existing institutional structure – universities – to conduct this training.
    So we get a proliferation of majors in more practical, hands-on fields like accounting, various forms of engineering, communications, and even stuff like textiles. And the universities can do this, they can train people to do these jobs, but it is important to note that these educational experiences are about the transmission of facts, not judgment.
    For awhile humanities remained an important part of education (and there was some mixing, I think engineering may have been taught at some colleges even back in the old aristocratic days), but as more and more of these fact-trained people went into the workforce, became successful, and sent their own children to college, fewer people valued this judgment-training, and we get a louder and louder chorus saying these courses were unnecessary or a waste of time. This was reinforced by the increasingly specialized nature of work, meaning more and more specialized classes were needed to prepare workers, squeezing out room for credits in the traditional fields. And now we are where we are.
    The problem is that judgment is incredibly important, not only to the nation, the economy, and a particular business, but to human life. But I will begin with the practical angle. Consider the current financial crisis. The fundamental cause of the crisis was a lack of JUDGMENT by members of the American and European financial system, not only in the leadership, but also in the lower levels, people about my age. These guys were trained in the finer points of collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps, but they were lacking an understanding in fundamental questions of epistemology and human nature. The failure to understand these issues led them to exercise terrible judgment and design a system that anyone with a solid grounding in philosophy could have told them was destined to fail. (And many did. See Nassim Taleb, Nouriel Roubini, etc.).
    As for the human life bit above, one of the best things about college is its liberation of the mind from provincialism and the development of reason and critical thinking. Plato is the best source on this, and the teaching that “the unexamined life is not worth living” is the reason why I’ve seen some say that anyone who graduates from college without a serious consideration of Plato should ask for their money back.
    But the market doesn’t get that. The market is overwhelmingly made up of people who don’t understand the purpose of higher education, and now they are distorting it into something that is something like a system of trade schools. The result will eventually be that we’ll have a system that will produce skilled practitioners – without the capacity for reasoned judgment (unless they just happen to be naturally gifted in reasoning) – which will leave us without people who can fulfill leadership roles and head off errors like the financial engineering that led to the crisis. But even more importantly, trade schools are a terrible idea in the modern economy because innovation moves so fast today. The skills that you learn in college will be outdated shortly after you graduate, certainly within 10 years, maybe within 5. But if you haven’t learned how to learn – the sort of thing you learn from a liberal arts education – you are just SoL. You have to go back to school again, and then again, and then again, ad nauseum.
    But the market doesn’t understand that. And it could be the downfall of those of us interested in educating people do something other than put square pegs in square holes.

  4. Wow. I seriously think you should write a book on this. That’s a really good point(s). Huh.

    Anybody else want to share some thoughts? I think Jake nailed it on the head.

  5. abalzer says:

    What about European economies/educational systems who have created/operated this very system – train very specialized workforces and an intricate tech/trade/apprenticeship process? What have they done? Are the humanities dead there, too?

  6. Jake says:

    My theory would suggest that humanities there would not be dead, because the diluting effects of the masses wouldn’t have affected university curricula so much.

    However, my understanding is that free tuition has really hurt the quality of European schools. That, however, is just hearsay, I don’t really know.

  7. twhite80 says:

    Well I think that when we go out looking for jobs we will likely have different opportunities than we thought we might have. I mean we will probably be able to muster 1 year contracts at places that are looking to save money. That means that Tenure track jobs are harder to come by and pay will not be so good. It also means moving around for a while before you get a long term job. It will probably loosen up when the economy pick back up, but the real possibility that academia will look like what Jake is proposing is a real possibility too. I am really struggling because I need something around here, and that is not looking very likely either. I think we should have requested Stimulus funds for retraining political science PhDs in technical jobs so our placement stays up. You know things like changing oil, brewing coffee and transcription services.

  8. Well, I’ve got the oil changing and coffee making down. Funny how those two things are so similar.

  9. Tina M Z says:

    So I just got back from the ISA conference and there was a lot of chatter among IR folks about the current job market and prospects for the next 1-2 years out. It seems Tyler is right on about the increase of short term post docs versus tenure track position openings. Looking at the ISA or APSA job listings confirms this. There are not very many tenure track positions open. However, people have to retire and well, move on from this world. It just might mean we have to be a little more flexible regarding where we go geographically and institutionally.

    So who else is going to the APSA meat, oops, I mean job market in Toronto this September?

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